NYC Lifeguard Shortage
Despite salary increases and simplified swim tests, NYC grapples with a critical shortage of lifeguards, partly blamed on union conflicts. Pexels

With the summer swimming season around the corner, New York City grapples with its most severe shortage of lifeguards on record. Officials attribute this lifeguard shortage partly to a contentious dispute between the city and the relatively obscure yet remarkably influential unions representing lifeguards.

Over the Memorial Day weekend, the city unveiled its 14 miles of public beaches. Still, millions of New Yorkers now confront the likelihood of restricted beach access and limited pool availability when they open next month.

According to Parks Department officials, fewer than 500 lifeguards are prepared for duty, roughly a third of the required staffing level to oversee beaches and pools.

The shortage of lifeguards, magnified by perennial challenges such as low wages, rigorous qualifying examinations, and a pandemic-induced slowdown in the lifeguard recruitment process, comes after months of behind-the-scenes negotiations between city officials and two relatively unknown lifeguard unions.

Union Influence and Recruitment Challenges

It's an unusual and stubborn labour dispute within the union, even in a city infamous for such conflicts. This disagreement has led the city, currently engaged in collective bargaining talks with union representatives for a new contract, to accuse the unions of leaving key swimming locations inadequately staffed.

The unions have a history marred by scandalous headlines, investigations, and damning government reports. They still have to gain considerable authority over all lifeguard operations, including selecting qualified personnel for summer employment.

In New York City, which is home to 300,000 millionaires and 60 billionaires, lifeguard coverage is indispensable. This is mainly because beaches and pools serve as vital respites for crowds, which comprise of inexperienced swimmers residing in hot neighbourhoods with limited access to public swimming facilities.

An inability to swim and the treacherous surf can be a deadly combination, particularly in places like the Rockaways. Its ocean beaches are notorious for dangerous rip currents, which pose significant risks during the evening hours when lifeguards are off-duty.

Surprisingly, this problem isn't new as there was a nationwide scarcity of lifeguards during the previous summer, when the city recruited 529 guards when public outdoor pools opened in late June. The efforts to bolster the lifeguard force continued through early July, ultimately reaching 900 certified lifeguards.

According to parks officials, as of Friday, only 480 lifeguards were available, including 280 returning guards and 200 recruits. Per the The New York Times, authorities are making every effort to bolster this number before the pools open.

For comparison, in 2016, the city employed nearly 1,500 lifeguards. Even in 2021, the total count was just over 1,000. Undeterred by the shortage, parks officials assured that they would maintain the standard eight-hour lifeguard coverage at pools and beaches.

Current Efforts To Step Up Lifeguard Recruitment

These optimistic officials expect a surge of returning lifeguards by early July, coinciding with the peak of summer crowds. Much to their chagrin, swimmers are advised to anticipate partial closures.

Parks officials introduced incentives like pay raises and retention bonuses and relaxed the notoriously tough swim test to boost lifeguard recruitment this summer. Additionally, they placed ads at public high schools, job fairs, and bus shelters.

However, two anonymous city officials said union leaders obstructed recruitment efforts by cancelling meetings and insisting on fax communication.

Contrary to the city's claims, Thea Setterbo from District Council 37 refuted any negative portrayal, stating that lifeguard totals, impacted more by the national shortage than labour disputes, would surpass last year's numbers within weeks, especially with returning students getting certified.

"Our members have a common goal, to keep beaches staffed and the public safe," she said. "The fact that we've had no drownings for eight years is a testament that our lifeguards are doing their job efficiently and maintaining the safety standards that have been in place for decades."

The shortage has sparked longstanding criticisms from union sceptics who assert that lifeguard operations are influenced by favouritism and reprisal. Janet Fash, 63, a veteran chief lifeguard in the Rockaways, highlighted the unique gatekeeper role of union leaders, which she believes has contributed to their enduring influence.

District Council 37's Henry A. Garrido dismissed Fash's critique as dissent, praising the union's management. He cited salary disputes as a key factor in the lifeguard shortage.

When contractual issues were settled, parks officials raised lifeguard wages in early April, including an hourly pay raise to $21.26 (£16.88) for newer guards from $16.10 (£12.78), with a $1,000 (£793.83) bonus for those staying past mid-August, many returning guards had already sought higher-paying positions outside the city, according to Garrido.

The average lifeguard salary in New York is $18.09 (£14.36) per hour, as per, derived from 406 reported salaries. The highest reported salary on the platform is $22.01 (£17.47).

In response to the shortage of lifeguards, New York City Mayor Eric Adams made a compelling proposal on Tuesday, advocating for migrants to be permitted to work in this crucial role. According to Mayor Adams, many migrants qualify as potential lifeguards because they possess excellent swimming abilities.

This proposal is part of the city's broader efforts to address the ongoing shortage in lifeguard numbers. "How do we have a large body of people in our city, and country, that are excellent swimmers and, at the same time, we need lifeguards -- and the only obstacle is that we won't give them the right to work to become a lifeguard. That just doesn't make sense," he said.

The necessity of lifeguards is undeniable, given the myriad hazards beneath the water's surface, beyond the peril of drowning. In the US, Surf Beach is one of the world's most dangerous spots for shark attacks.